my teacher used to make a big deal about making sure that my bows moved parallel to the bridge so that they were straight. however, I have seen a lot of fantastic violinists (particularly those who were active in the first half of the 20th century) who don't look like they're doing this. what I most often see is that the bow will start parallel to the bridge when it's at the frog and then it is angled away from the player by the time they get to the tip (I can't explain it very well so I'm just going to hope people know what I'm referring to). it also looks like they're bowing over/at the fingerboard at the tip and I don't see the reason for it. I have seen other variants of this and it appears to be intentional.
I think I read something about it having to do with a different bow hold or school of teaching and it was a vague explanation. what is the advantage of bowing this way? are they just moving between sounding points or is there some other reason?
I see it a lot too, especially Isaac Stern.
I guess your teacher wanted you to learn and master straight bowing first, before you could tilt and angle away your bow like an international soloist.
Matt is right of course, however, the most important is that your bow hair contacts the string in the lane where you want it to. The straight bow is a solid technique to avoid that the bow hair moves to a different lane (and, angling the bow in or out is an established way of letting your bow drift to another lane). But, as long as you produce a good sound, are flexible, and are bowing at the lane where you want, you are clearly doing fine. That probably explains what you observe with those violin masters. They know what they are doing.
It seems to me that some of the great ones "taper" their downbow stroke toward the tip because their arms aren't long enough to do otherwise. But there is also a musical reason to do this: it moves the bow hair closer to the fingerboard so the amplitude of the sound is reduced and the forthcoming bow change is less audible.
If the bow is not parallel to the bridge, the bow hair will pull either towards the bridge or the fingerboard, off of the ideal point of contact. The physicists will call that vector forces. Drifting over the fingerboard is the main problem. After learning how to bow straight, the bowing can be modified by a very slight angle, to keep the bow where you want it. Warchal has a diagram of that somewhere on their web-site. It looks like a very elongated figure-8 pattern.
Of COURSE many of the great violinists did and do this. But teachers always try to pretend its not the case. Same as swaying and moving to the music. Every teacher I had, old world and new world, wanted me to stand like a statute with a specific posture, even as I watched all soloists including my teachers do the opposite.
Michael, exactly right. If you sound like Bell, for example, no one cares about your crazy bow hold.
One must realize that "imitating the masters" while playing with a crooked bow is all too often used as an excuse for lacking attention to detail (sloppy playing). While many of these players did indeed know what they were doing, many other players do not.
Here is a nice shot of bow angles, with someone not known to bob and weave a lot:
Great Russian violinists who were pupils of Auer, with arms short enough to not be able to reach the tip of the bow, learned to arc the bow slightly at the tip (dropping the elbow back slightly) rather than hyperextending the arm to maintain a bow that is strictly parallel to the bridge.
Heifetz did some interesting changes of angle further away from the tip, as well.
If you're a beginner or intermediate player this is not even a useful discussion; keeping the bow parallel to the bridge in the right part of the string should be the focus.
Personally, I have found that people respond better to the idea of Arcs or curves than they do to "Straight." There is nothing natural about something moving perfectly straight, and we are designed to work in curved motions, not straight ones.
Regarding Erik Williams' words on "crescent bows". I call it "banana bowing". The point is that a straight bowing feels like you are making a crescent or a banana shaped bowing. Kids understand that metaphor easily.
Teaching a beginner is light-years from coaching a professional. The basic techniques of bowing from the elbow, not the shoulder as well as being able to maintain friction at the sounding point (and changing as you go into higher positions) is what it is really all about.
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